When it was published fifty years ago, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart caused a stir for its revelation of something hitherto strange and unfamiliar in the world of literature: genuine African voices. Achebe was not the first African novelist, as he has sometimes wrongly been called, but his use of standard English to produce believable characters who inhabited a complex and authentic world marked two existing traditions of writing about Africa as evolutionary dead ends.
Before Achebe's breakthrough, there had been folklore-based African narratives, more entertainments than novels, written in English vernaculars that sought to reproduce the aural texture of African pidgins. The most famous of these, The Palm Wine Drinkard and my Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was written by another Nigerian, Amos Tutuola, and published six years before Things Fall Apart was released by Heinemann. Today it is hard not to hear a condescending ring in Dylan Thomas's praise of Tutuola's book for what he called its "young English."
Earlier still, there had been yet another tradition of European writers ventriloquizing what they imagined to be an African voice. The classic example is a novel published in 1939 called Mister Johnson, by Joyce Cary, a former British colonial officer in Nigeria. It is an ostensible tragedy written in a comical style with a central African character, the titular Johnson, whom Cary described as someone who "swims gaily on the surface of life." Two decades ago, an essay about Cary in The New York Review of Books described the book's lightheaded eponymous figure in terms that un-self-consciously echoed one of the oldest and ugliest stereotypes of Africans–their inability to master the concept of time: "A fragrant breeze, a blazing tropical sunrise, a pretty girl–such things so overwhelm him that past and future alike momentarily disappear."
In interviews Achebe has suggested that his book, which has been translated into some fifty languages, was written partly in reaction to the patronizing caricature of Johnson. Things Fall Apart, however, unlike Mister Johnson, is tragedy pure and simple, both deeply personal–in the case of its main character, the excessively proud Okonkwo, whose Sophoclean fall is foretold by any number of omens–and collective, as Okonkwo's society is sundered and then subjugated by the British empire's one-two combination of missionaries and colonialists.
However remarkable on this score, Achebe's first novel achieved far more than revealing genuine African voices. Things Fall Apart was the first novel in English to depict Africans who exist in an intricate moral universe; one that resonates with indigenous thought and values and concedes nothing, even in the face of the arrival of far more powerful outsiders. In place of the ignorant and superstitious "oogah-boogah"-muttering natives served up by generations of Westerners in literature and film, Achebe breathes life into sentient and articulate characters, people like Akunna, who delights in refuting a white missionary who insists that the Igbo divinities are false idols. "Yes," says Akunna, referring to a carving. "It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach Him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church."